Mayday Training Done Right

In the last few years, mayday training has become a hot topic around the firehouse as well as the latest training trend to sweep through the fire service, and our fire department has been no exception.

Two years ago, our department created and participated in a mayday training course that was modeled after the National Fire Academy curriculum developed by Dr. Burton Clark, a training specialist with the USFA and Chair of the Management Science Program at the National Fire Academy. This was due in large part to the efforts of training captains Danny Caldwell and John Marlar. Caldwell and Marlar spent numerous hours putting together a great curriculum, building props and designing a course so the department could fully participate in the mayday training. When it was over, many of our personnel said they enjoyed the training; some said it was “the best on-the-job training we’ve ever had.”

That was the consensus at the time because training was being conducted department-wide and the training staff and line personnel felt great about this accomplishment (and rightfully so). But 2 years have passed since we performed that mayday training, so our crew recently performed a refresher mayday course.

In this article, I’ll discuss some of the issues we dealt with during our more recent training exercise. Many of the issues that came up were some of the same issues that came up 2 years ago, so I’ll discuss those first and what we found this time around.

Radio Operations  
The first problem area we discovered 2 years ago concerned our personnel and radio usage. Our department currently uses Motorola RTX 3000 series radios. We found that the RTX was difficult to use in a mayday situation because the emergency button is recessed and therefore difficult to operate with gloves on.

A recessed button makes sense from an operational standpoint because you want to avoid unintentional activations during emergency incidents. But it took our firefighters several attempts and a lot of patience to find the button and properly activate it during training. Ultimately, we determined that the best way to locate the button was to run your hand down the antenna until you felt the emergency distress button on the top of the radio. From there, you can find the recessed button, which you must push firmly until you hear the radio key up.

During our drill, we had firefighters actually take off the radio antenna and use it to activate the emergency button. Some firefighters weren’t even able to locate the button. The overall drawback to this operation: It was very time-intensive, and time is something you don’t have a lot of when in a mayday situation.

One positive note: This exercise was a real eye-opener for our firefighters, reinforcing the fact that proper understanding and use of radios is a critical skill that must be second nature when calling a mayday. We also learned about these problems in a safe, controlled environment and not in an actual emergency that could cost us lives.

Another issue we had with radio communications: The operator must hold the radio in the proper position to facilitate communications. When our firefighters are masked up and on air, they must hold the radio under their facepiece, next to their throat in order to transmit a clear message. If held in any other position, it’s difficult to make out exactly what’s being said.

Many of our firefighters were unaware of this problem simply because they don’t use their radio very often. And when radios are being used, it’s usually by our company officer, who’s wearing SCBA and standing in a dark, smoke-filled environment, so our firefighters can’t observe how to properly use a radio during firefighting operations.

Communications has been an issue for our personnel for years, and it’s only through experience and mayday training that our department has learned to better position the radio to communicate clearly. Again, training helped our firefighters learn another critical skill in a safe training environment and it helped us realize this was a real issue that could directly affect the outcome of a mayday call.

Our communications issues created a lot of discussion throughout the department. One recommendation that came up was to use a lapel microphone connection for hands-free operation, and to prevent the painstaking tug-of-war that seems to occur when retrieving the radio from a coat pocket and then trying to make sure the radio is orientated the right way.

Some of our members also recommended purchasing lapel microphones with emergency activation buttons on the microphone itself.

Bunker Gear
While training with bunker gear, we discovered a couple issues that needed to be addressed. First, our gloves greatly limited our dexterity (as we discovered while training with the radios) due to their bulkiness. Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution to this problem because our gloves must be constructed according to safety standards that protect us during incidents, and part of the bulk of the glove is what provides that needed protection. 

To operate the emergency activation button on our radios, we had to overcome the thickness in the fingers of the gloves, and we also had to overcome limited feel and dexterity. We believe the gloves also contributed to our communication problems with the radio being faced the wrong direction. Eventually, we attempted to use the glove’s bulkiness to our advantage when activating the radio’s emergency button by pressing down hard and hoping the bunched-up glove would depress it, even if our fingertip didn’t. Important: Relying on the glove rather than a finger to depress the button meant we couldn’t always feel the button being activated. 

As I mentioned earlier, our personnel sometimes have to wrestle the radio out of their pockets. As a result, they would accidently turn the channel selector and begin transmitting on the wrong channel. This is a huge concern, because 1) the firefighter would never know they’re operating on the wrong channel unless dispatch informed them and 2) command wouldn’t immediately know they were in trouble either. Again, this wastes precious time we don’t have in a mayday situation.

Our bunker coats also posed a problem. During training, they continually rode up the backs of our firefighters, leaving a gap between their coats and pants. This obviously left our firefighters dangerously exposed and indicated that our coats need a longer tail.

Our final bunker gear issue concerned our pants. As our firefighters were negotiating the mayday course, their pant legs rode up past the top of their boots. Again, this creates a dangerous exposure problem.

To prevent this from happening, we discussed the possibility of purchasing pants with longer legs, or developing some type of stirrup-type pant that can be integrated with our boots.

Now, in large part due to our training, we’re aware of two possible exposure issues related to our bunker gear that we were previously unaware of.

Making the Mayday Call
Giving the proper information during a mayday was the next big concern to come out of our training sessions. Now, fast-forward to 2009 when we conducted our mayday training refresher. During our refresher training, we found that the majority of our firefighters had difficulty remembering the L.U.N.A.R. (Location, Unit, Name, Assignment and Resources) acronym.

During a mayday call, you should give your L.U.N.A.R. report. For example: “Mayday, mayday, mayday! I’m in a bathroom, E-4 Captain French, search and rescue. I need the rapid intervention team.” Firefighters seemed to remember this well 2 years ago—most likely because we reviewed the L.U.N.A.R. acronym right before performing the drill.

I admit that we haven’t continually drilled on mayday calls, and the acronym is hard to remember, so during our refresher course, we found that giving our location, name and needs was all we needed. Plus, it’s easier to remember and it doesn’t take as long to transmit. 

So now, if and when a mayday call is issued, our transmission will be, “Mayday, mayday, mayday. I’m trapped in a bathroom. This is Captain French, and I need rapid intervention.”

We also discussed that giving “Who, What and Where” during the transmission would get the job done as well. Note: I’m not against the LUNAR acronym by any means; however, trying to remember that acronym along with the other 3,000 things I’m supposed to be proficient in sometimes isn’t practical. We learned through the refresher training that simplicity is key. Giving firefighters something simple to remember would work better for future situations, especially if we can’t perform another refresher drill for another 2 years.

Although we still have issues to address within our own department concerning radios, bunker gear and communication, at least we know we can call a mayday effectively with the resources we have on hand. Plus, we’ve become fully aware of exposure and equipment problems that we have to deal with on a daily basis.

Some recommendations to come out of our training include purchasing better bunker gear to address exposure issues, purchasing better communication systems, such as radio lapel microphones to make transmitting messages easier and finding better gloves to help combat limited feel and dexterity issues.

In response to these recommendations, our department is currently working with Lion Apparel’s Research and Development staff to create a better bunker gear ensemble. Just a few weeks ago, we got a sample set of gear to which improvements were made in several of the problem areas I’ve discussed. We are now in the process of field testing the gear.

So after reading this article, ask yourself: How often does my department need to perform mayday training? While attending a class at the National Fire Academy in fall 2008, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Clark speak about numerous topics, including mayday calls. He said he feels we should hold mayday training quarterly, and I agree with him 100 percent.

Remember: If you’re like us, training doesn’t happen continually, and it most likely won’t happen quarterly as recommended. So you need to find ways to stay ready and continue to work toward becoming proficient in calling a mayday. Personally, I’d strive for at least biannual training. This would continue to keep your skill set up and give you a chance to work on maintaining proficiency in using the L.U.N.A.R. acronym.

The bottom line: Get out there and train as often as you can to give your crewmembers the ability to save their own lives, and yours too, if needed.


For More Information
Mayday training information can be found at Check out Code H134, Calling the Mayday: Hands-on training for firefighters (2006). TRaining Specialist email:

No posts to display